Social capitalists

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Social capitalists

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on June 2, 2005.

This week marks the sixth wedding anniversary for my wife and me. The marriage is the core of our social support, and we've become involved with each other's friends, co-workers and associates.

Every month, Front Range Objectivism hosts two reading groups and a dinner party for regional fans of Ayn Rand. The group also holds a banquet several times a year, and its members recently raised more than $11,000 to buy books for Colorado school children. (Books by Rand, of course.)

These are a few of the many social networks to which I am directly tied. Last month I had an opportunity to reflect on the profound importance of "social capital" when I was invited by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) and Liberty Fund to discuss the concept in Boston. IHS helped to expand my own social ties.

One of the readings for the conference was Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam. He explains, "social capital refers to connections among individuals -- social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." Social capital encourages good behavior, creates the importance of reputation and encourages people to be trustworthy. "Trustworthiness lubricates social life," Putnam writes, and "can facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit."

Putnam recognizes that not all social relationships promote virtue. The archetype example of a bad social network is the KKK, which exists to oppress select people outside that group. The general problem is that social networks can serve to entrench ignorance, bigotry and oppression. If people in a group accept racism, sexism or some other bad idea, they are likely to use the power of the group for harmful and immoral ends.

Similarly, ideology plays a key role in how much good social capital a culture creates. Putnam blames declining social capital in part on what he terms "social Darwinism," which he associates with the view that there should be "little or no interference by government with the 'natural laws of the marketplace.'" Putnam believes social Darwinism "foreshadowed the libertarian worship of the unconstrained market that has once again become popular in contemporary America."

But Putnam is wrong. It is true that free markets encourage healthy competition to produce the best goods and services at the lowest costs. But the consequence of this is to massively increase real wealth and standards of living throughout society. Moreover, the "unconstrained market" also includes all the voluntary activities by which people lend a helping hand, contribute to charity and cooperate "for mutual benefit." The individualism of classical liberalism is not that of the atomized, noncooperative, mean-spirited person; it is the idea that people have individual rights to fundamentally set the course of their own lives and to participate in social networks, without being pushed around by criminals or the politically powerful.

Putnam's problem is that he is often a social socialist, not a social capitalist. A self-described "progressive," Putnam doesn't discuss Karl Marx's influence on the "Progressive Era." Putnam describes all sorts of ways the "progressives" centralized political power during the 1910s and '20s: (in my words) they further nationalized the money supply, imposed a national income tax, kept life-saving drugs off the market through centralized political force, punished businesses for being too successful and put national bureaucrats in charge of "regulation of the communications industry."

Putnam, a careful if biased writer, also describes people's worries with the Progressive Era. He describes the "technocratic elitism" critics find with progressivism, along with its "excessive social control and subordination of the individual." In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks argues that socialism fell apart into the alienating philosophies of postmodernism, which explains modern American social problems better than anything Putnam offers.

Putnam dismisses the claim that an overly powerful government is squashing social capital. He claims rates of government spending are not associated with a decline in political engagement. Yet federal spending grew rapidly during the 20th century, and the resulting rise of powerful special-interest groups eroded public participation in politics.

Putnam recognizes that one governmental program -- urban renewal -- destabilized many poorer neighborhoods and destroyed social capital there. Other examples abound. For example, Putnam spends several pages lamenting the decline of card games. Yet police shut down a peaceable group that was building social capital by playing poker in Palmer Lake. One victim told the Gazette, "They came in with guns drawn, lasers trained on people's heads. They swarmed in screaming, 'Put your hands over your face and don't move.'" Recently I described the enormous positive social capital generated by the .50 caliber shoots -- something various politicians want to shut down.

Putnam downplays the profound importance of commercial activity in developing social capital. For example, he argues that women who work full-time tend to be less engaged in other social activities -- even though work itself is fundamentally a social activity. While Putnam makes a convincing case that too many people watch too much TV unthinkingly, he also ignores the central role TV has played in spreading information and opinions throughout the culture.

In the end, as Putnam argues, social capital depends on individual choices. You can choose to be trustworthy, develop a good reputation and spend time developing friendships and social networks. Ultimately, whether social capital is used for good purposes, and whether our governmental institutions promote or hinder good social capital, depend on the ideas you accept and put into action.

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